The Pursuit of God

Serious Topics for Serious Christians

Understanding Divine Judgment: Illumination, Empowerment & A God Who Delights In Mercy

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AUDIO VERSION: YouTube  Podbean

Most Christians are in a confused muddle about how God judges them. When we believe that God expects more from us than He does, we end up trapped in an endless cycle of pain, shame, and despair. We conclude that God is impossible to please, and this leads us into all sorts of harmful activities. Do you repent for the same sins over and over again? Do feel the need to injure your body or deprive your life of any joy as a means of atoning for past sins? Do you avoid a lot of subjects in your prayer life or do you avoid praying altogether because you’re afraid of God blasting you with some wrathful response? All of these are common symptoms of believing that God is impossible to please, and that belief stems from not understanding what God expects from you. To get yourself out of this cycle of misery—or to prevent yourself from getting sucked into it in the first place—you need to learn about two concepts that are critical to gaining a proper view of Divine Judgment. Those two topics are spiritual illumination, and Divine empowerment.  Anyone can gain a clear idea of how God judges them if it’s explained to them properly, and as a Christian, it is vital that you understand where the lines of responsibility fall.

DIVINE EMPOWERMENT

Let’s start with the idea of Divine empowerment. As a creature that God has made, you are totally dependent on Him in life. This means that you can’t just do whatever you want whenever you want. God has put limitations on you which you have no control over. For example, you might want to fly around like a bird, but you simply can’t. If you want to go airborne, you need equipment to do it, and that equipment gets complicated because not being able to fly is not your only limitation. You can’t breathe without oxygen. You need a certain degree of warmth in your environment. If we were to stick you in a hot air balloon, and float you super high, you would end up freezing and suffocating. To fly at high altitudes, delicate little you requires a complicated plane. You need to be able to sit in a special cabin that maintains a comfortable amount of heat, oxygen, and pressure for your sensitive little body, which we call your earthsuit.

Now suppose we forget about flying. Suppose we submerge you in water instead. Now we run into the same problems. Even though water is loaded with oxygen, you are unable to breathe it. You are also unable to keep your body temperature up when you’re surrounded by a cold liquid, so now we’ll have to get you an air tank and a special suit for keeping warm. But then there’s the problem of pressure. The deeper you go, the more pressure gets put on your little earthsuit. If you dive down too fast or come up too fast, your earthsuit can have serious problems. The point is this: you’re a very delicate, limited little thing. In every aspect of your existence, you have special needs and special problems. Your limitations come in physical, emotional, psychological, and even spiritual forms. Some of your limitations are common to all humans—such as your need for oxygen. But you have other limitations that other humans do not have. Take the soldier who comes home after going through a horrific imprisonment experience. Because of the traumas he has been through, that soldier has gained new limitations in his life—physical, emotional, and mental. With help, that soldier can learn to get free of some of those limitations, but others might stay with him his whole life. The point is this: as you go through life, your personal limitations are in a constant state of flux.

At certain times of the day, you feel cheerful and energetic. Other times you feel tired and depressed. When you’re feeling peppy, you have less limitations than when you’re feeling down. Learning to function well in life is largely a matter of learning how to recognize and respond to your ever changing limitations. When you feel hungry, you need to eat something. If you try to ignore your physical need for food, you’ll end up in a mess. But maybe you can go for hours in a hungry state while someone else has to eat right away in order to avoid passing out. Pick any limitation that is common to all humans—such as the need for food—and we can find endless variety among individuals. Some people must have meat, others can thrive as vegetarians. Our Creators love variation and change, so They have created us all with a unique combination of limitations, and those limitations are constantly fluctuating in a way that is personal to each individual.

Okay, so now we understand two very important concepts. First, God has intentionally created you with many limitations. Second, He is constantly shifting those limitations about. In any area of your life right now, God could cause you to be more limited or less limited. When we talk about Divine empowerment, we are talking about God choosing to make you less limited in some specific area of your life. Divine empowerment is often quite temporary—we experience our usual limitations suddenly being decreased for a short period of time and then they suddenly return to what we consider to be “normal” levels. Peter walking on water is a good example of this. Normally, human beings cannot walk on water. We are limited to only being able to walk on surfaces with a higher density than water molecules. The only way that Peter even had the option of walking on water was by Jesus temporarily reducing Peter’s physical limitations so that he was able to tread on a liquid surface. For the few moments that he walked on water, Peter was less limited than normal, therefore he had more options available to him. This is how Divine empowerment works: it increases our options in a given moment.

Now when God suddenly gives us options that are unusual for any human to have, we call it a miracle. When Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego walked around in a roaring furnace, it was miraculous. God empowered those men to be able to walk in the flames by temporarily changing their physical limitations. Even though God is constantly changing every human’s limitations all of the time, there are some options He hardly ever gives anyone, so we reserve the term miraculous for those rare events. But is the act of God empowering us rare? Not at all.

In your personal life, God is constantly empowering you to do things that you normally couldn’t do. Maybe you’ve got an obnoxious mother-in-law who is always finding fault with you. Normally when she’s around, you lose your cool and return her insults with a few zingers of your own. But one morning she snaps at you, and you’re just about to throw some sarcastic comment back at her, when suddenly you discover that you have the option to hold your tongue. This is a case of Divine empowerment. God is intervening in your situation and making sudden adjustments to your usual emotional limitations so that you find yourself having options that you don’t normally have. As a general rule, you know that you are being rude to your mother-in-law, but you just can’t help it. The woman just seems to bring the worst out of you. But on that one morning, when God empowered you, you suddenly found yourself able to hold your tongue. This stands out to you as significant because it is such a departure from the usual pattern of you feeling like your temper gets the best of you. Often in these kinds of moments, Christians feel like they’ve had a major victory over their flesh and they are excited to share their experience with others. Enjoying the moment is good, but we need to recognize what is really going on: we didn’t suddenly find a way to beat our flesh back, God empowered us. Empowerment is a gift, and without it, we have no hope of overcoming our limitations. Empowerment is often a temporary experience, and once God withdraws His empowerment, we instantly revert back to our previous limited state. This means that you will now fire back some nasty zinger at your mother-in-law the next time she takes a potshot at you. Because you don’t like how rude you’re being, you feel bad when you lose your cool after your brief moment of self-control. If you don’t understand how empowerment works, then you’ll end up blaming yourself for not being able to maintain the control you were able to manage earlier.

We can apply these same principles to any area of life. Why does the alcoholic suddenly find himself able to turn down some tantalizing drink? What makes the smoker able to finally kick his habit? What makes the porn addict able to put away the dirty pictures? What makes the coward suddenly able to stand up and tell off the bully? The answer is empowerment.

All humans struggle with becoming too attached to the things of this world. It’s easy for us to become so emotionally bonded to our money, our stuff, our career, or our loved ones, that we simply cannot fathom giving them up for God’s sake. This is a limitation that we cannot overcome on our own. In Matthew 19, Jesus is talking about this principle when He says:

“I tell you the truth, it will be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Yes, I tell you that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mt. 19:23-24)

The love of money is something that many of us get caught up in. Before we realize it, we are positively addicted to our wealth and we simply do not have the strength to separate ourselves from it. Asking us to give up our money for God’s sake is like putting a drink in the hand of a hardcore alcoholic and telling him not to taste it. Some temptations are simply impossible for us to resist. Why is this? Because resisting them requires resources that we simply do not have in our current limited state. As one of our Creators, Jesus certainly understands how hopelessly addicted we can become to money. In Matthew 19, He’s talking about a man who is hopelessly addicted to his wealth when He says that it would be harder for that man to submit to God than it would be for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. A camel can’t possibly squeeze through the eye of a needle, and we can’t possibly overcome addictions without God’s help.

When Jesus’ followers heard this, they were very surprised and asked, “Then who can be saved?”

Jesus looked at them and said, “For people this is impossible, but for God all things are possible.” (Mt. 19:25-26)

What Jesus means here is that God can empower us to do absolutely anything. But will He? No. God never empowers us to do all things at once. He only ever empowers us to do certain things some of the time. And while He is empowering us to do certain things, He is intentionally blocking us from doing many other things.

Blocking us from doing things is a very simple matter for God. Maybe you dream of being a professional baseball player. You’ve got great health and some impressive skills, so why not? You spend years working your way up through various leagues, but then one day you get a shoulder injury and suddenly all of your dreams are crushed. What’s happening here is that God is suddenly increasing your physical limitations. Anytime God increases our limitations, we end up with less options than we had before. Christians talk a lot about having free choice, and indeed we do have the ability to freely choose things, but we can only ever choose among the options God gives us, and those options are always quite limited.

THE PURPOSE OF LIMITATIONS

So now let’s step back and look at the big picture. In your life, God is constantly throwing new limitations upon you, lifting old ones off, and shifting about the ones that you have. What is the point of all of this? We humans find the whole idea of limitations very frustrating. While God is boxing us in, we’re constantly pushing against the walls of that box trying to find a way to increase our options in life. When we’re sick, we look for ways to get well. When we’re clumsy at something, we try to improve our skills through practice. Learning to read, write and speak—these are all efforts to reduce our limitations in life and expand our options. Is it wrong to try and reach for more options in life? It depends. Where is God in the process? Are we looking for His guidance or are we trying to fight against limitations that He says we need to have for now? God has created us to be creatures who continuously grow and change. We aren’t supposed to lie in cribs our whole lives. God wants us to develop our skills, exercise our minds, and grow into physical adults. But He is not going to let us live our lives our own way. He insists on micromanaging the entire process and there will be many times when He forces us to go down roads we don’t like in order to push us closer to His agenda for us.

So what exactly is God’s agenda for you? It’s simple: God wants you to grow closer to Him. He designed you with the capacity to have a personal bond with Him, and He wants that bond to develop into something very special. When we first get saved, God is a stranger to us. The goal of maturing spiritually after salvation is not to become nice people, but to develop rich communion with our Makers. Yahweh, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit do not want us to spend our entire existence ignoring Them. They want us to pursue a closer relationship with Them. Growing closer to our Gods requires an enormous amount of learning and changing on our part. Creating us as limited beings who are totally dependent on Them to do anything is a critical part of how our Gods help us grow closer to Them. You see, relating to Gods is an entirely different thing than relating to humans. Other humans are our equals, but Yahweh, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are our Creators. They want an entirely different kind of relationship dynamic with us—one that would not work at all in a human relationship.

It’s a complicated thing trying to learn how to regularly practice something that would normally result in disaster in this world. If you were to try to give another human the kind of reverence, submission, dependency and trust that your Gods want from you, you would both end up in a total mess. We can’t treat humans like Gods, and we can’t treat our Gods like humans. We have to learn to treat these two groups very differently, and that calls for a lifetime of special training. Being trapped in an existence of ever shifting limitations is a critical part of that training. Because God has far more control over our souls, bodies, and lives than we do, the only way we can end up finding peace in life is by fully submitting to His Authority, embracing our total dependency on Him, and learning to trust in His good Character. By locking us into a very limited existence God assumes the alpha position in our lives. He is the dominant One. He is our Master and Controller, whether we want Him to be or not. If God didn’t limit us like this, we’d never learn how to relate to Him properly, for God demands submission from us, and we can’t get close to Him without it. God is not our peer, and He won’t relate to us on that level. By severely limiting us, He forces us to recognize this and start exploring new options for how to relate to a God who demonstrates such absolute control over our existence.

SPIRITUAL ILLUMINATION

Let’s review. God created us to be vastly limited creatures in order to help us learn how to properly relate to Him. The very happy news in all of this is that we have a God who is so interested in relating to us. God could have just plunked us down in this world and then gone on to something totally new. But instead, He is keenly interested in us, and He micromanages every detail of our lives in a continuous effort to motivate us to want to pursue Him. One of the ways He interacts with us is by constantly adjusting the limits He has put on us, and Divine empowerment is when He temporarily reduces some limitation in our lives so that we experience more options. But options by themselves aren’t enough. To move closer to God and to please God, we need to have some understanding of what He wants. Here is where we get into spiritual illumination.

While Divine empowerment is about adjusting our limitations as creatures, spiritual illumination is about educating our souls about who God is and what He wants. You can’t choose to obey or defy God until you have some degree of spiritual illumination. The Holy Spirit is the main One who illuminates you in life. Just as you can turn a light on in a room to reveal things that you couldn’t see in the dark, when the Holy Spirit illuminates your soul, you suddenly understand things that have always been true. For example, there was a time when you didn’t understand that God existed. Now you do. What changed? The Holy Spirit gave you some illumination on the subject of God’s existence. Has He told you everything there is to know about that subject? Not even close. But you’re a lot better off now than you were before He told you anything, and if you keep responding well to Him, He’ll be telling you a lot more in the future.

What pleases God? What displeases Him? Why did God make you? What should you be learning from the Bible? Are the things we’re telling you in this post true or false? In order to answer these questions, you need spiritual illumination from the Holy Spirit. You need Him to give your soul understanding that you can’t get on your own. You see, any human can put forth their theories and opinions about God, but what good is any of that to you? If you’re going to grow close to God, you need real truth, not just theories, and your Gods are the only Ones who can supply you with that truth. This is why we’re always telling you to check everything with the Holy Spirit. You can’t just believe what people tell you about God, you need to ask God directly if there’s any truth in what you’re being told. When we sincerely care about pleasing God, He is very happy to educate us further about who He is and what He wants. But when we disrespect God and rebel against Him, then He not only refuses to teach us more about Him, He starts to take back the knowledge we already had.

You never want to take the wisdom of the Holy Spirit for granted. You might know volumes about God today, but the Holy Spirit can turn you into an ignorant fool tomorrow by simply taking away the illumination He has given you. This is a very scary process, and it’s happening around you all the time in the Church: Christians who used to be wise are getting dumber by the day because God is intentionally eroding their wisdom. This is a form of Divine discipline. The Holy Spirit considers insights about God to be priceless treasures. If we refuse to treat them as such, He takes them away from us. This is why we do not want to take the Holy Spirit’s insights for granted or develop a “You owe me” attitude. Our Gods owe us nothing. It is a privilege to get to know Them better, not a right.

EMPOWERMENT, ILLUMINATION & DIVINE JUDGEMENT

So now that we understand what Divine empowerment and spiritual illumination are, let’s talk about how these things relate to God’s judgment of you. For starters, God does not accuse you of disobeying Him until He has taught you what He wants. Let’s take young Mary who is sleeping around with any man who will have her. God says that it’s wrong to have sex with anyone other than your legal spouse, but Mary honestly doesn’t know this. She was raised to believe that promiscuity was the normal thing to do. So is God going to accuse Mary of willfully defying Him in this area of her life? No, because He knows that she doesn’t know any better.

Now one day the Holy Spirit illuminates Mary’s soul on the subject of God and sex. She now understands that God says her promiscuous lifestyle is morally wrong. Spiritual illumination always changes things, because once we have understanding about something, we are forced to respond that understanding. Are we going to accept or reject God’s standards? Suppose Mary’s soul responds to the Holy Spirit by saying, “Wow, God, I had no idea that You felt this way! I don’t want to be disobeying You in my life. Please help me change my ways.” This is obedience, and this is pleasing to God.

But suppose Mary’s soul responds by saying, “Whatever, God, You’re such a stick in the mud. I’m so not going to change my lifestyle over Your dumb requirements.” This is rebellion and this is displeasing to God. He will then respond with some form of discipline to motivate Mary to stop defying Him. Can you see how spiritual illumination changed Mary’s situation? When she was first sleeping around, it wasn’t causing a problem between her and God because she honestly didn’t know better. But once the Holy Spirit educated her, changes were required. It was no longer okay for her to keep going like she was going. Spiritual illumination forces us to make soul choices, and those soul choices are what God judges us by.

Now let’s go back to the first option and say that Mary obeyed God by caring about His standards and wanting to please Him. She’s making the right soul choice, but will she be able to follow through with her actions? Here is where Divine empowerment comes into play. Sex can be extremely addictive, especially when we associate it with acceptance and love. Maybe Mary grew up without a father and she feels a desperate core need for male affirmation. When she’s in bed with her one night stands, it feels like that deep emotional need of hers is getting satisfied—at least for a brief moment in time. That feeling is so positive that she just can’t pass up an opportunity to experience it. God has intentionally put Mary through certain life experiences which have resulted in her having certain emotional and psychological limitations. Those limitations are now preventing her from being able to resist the temptation to sleep around. Now Mary is sitting in a bar and handsome Mike is hitting on her. If God does not intervene in this situation and give Mary the empowerment she needs to refuse Mike’s advances, she’s going to end up in Mike’s bed. What if she does? How will God judge her? It depends.

In the first place, did God come through with the empowerment or didn’t He? Let’s say He didn’t. In this scenario, Mary will find herself unable to overcome her own limitations. She craves male affirmation and when Mike dangles it in front of her, she takes the bait. So does this mean God is mad at her? Well, what’s going on in her soul?  God judges us by our soul choices. When we want to obey God, we find our souls groaning in frustration as we fall headlong into temptation. Mary will be rolling around in the sack with Mike, but she won’t be enjoying it like she used to, because now her soul is distressed to know she’s doing something God doesn’t like. Because her soul is longing to do right, God will look at this situation and say that Mary has obeyed Him, even though to us it looks like she’s defied Him. But her soul was making the right choice even as her body was doing wrong, and the soul is what matters to God. God understands exactly where Mary’s limitations are because He is the One controlling them. God does not blame Mary for having those limitations, nor does He expect her to overcome them on her own. When God limits us, we are limited. We cannot cross lines that He doesn’t want us to cross. So without Divine empowerment, Mary didn’t have any hope of overcoming this temptation situation.

Now let’s rewind and go back to Mike flirting with Mary in the bar. Once again, Mary feels convicted by the Holy Spirit that it would be wrong to encourage Mike. But this time, the Holy Spirit also steps up with some extra help. He gives Mary the empowerment she needs to resist Mike and suddenly Mary realizes she has the option of getting up and leaving. This is a new thing for her—usually she feels paralyzed once the flirting starts. But now, suddenly, she has more options because empowerment always increases our choices. So what now? Well, ideally, Mary would get up and leave. If she does, can she take credit for her newfound self-control? No, because empowerment is a gift. God is the One who is giving Mary an escape here, and once He educates her about this, He will want her to give Him all the glory. But understanding the mechanics of empowerment requires more illumination and God doesn’t teach us everything at once. So Mary might boast of her success to her friends and really think she somehow pulled it out of herself to overcome her own weakness, when in reality, it was all God.

Now let’s consider a third scenario. Mary receives enough empowerment to walk away, but she doesn’t. Instead, she decides to go home with Mike and blow off what God is telling her. This is disobedience. God knows that Mary had the option to obey Him, because He gave her that option. So if Mary tries to say “I just couldn’t help myself,” she’d be lying. In this one instance, she could resist the temptation, and that’s what God was telling her to do. She didn’t do it because she decided that what God wanted wasn’t as important as what she wanted. Who can’t relate to this? We all make similar choices countless times in life, and when we do, God isn’t pleased. But He’s not furious with us, either, because God isn’t some raging volcano with a short fuse. God is patient and gracious. Maybe Mary goes home with Mike, and the next morning she feels convicted by the Holy Spirit for intentionally blowing Him off. Mary now has the chance to repent and immediately get back into a good place with God by simply owning up to what she did. “I’m sorry, Lord. I should have listened to You. Help me to do better next time. I really want to honor You in my life.” When we are sincere in our repentance, and not just playing games, God never holds some grudge over us. Remember that He created us for the purpose of relating to Him, and He isn’t interested in hampering that process just to do it. If we are willing to submit to Him, He will be glad to keep working with us and teaching us and giving us new opportunities to honor Him in life.

Now all of the principles we’ve talked about with Mary apply to you as well. What do you struggle with in life? Lust? Porn? Money? Stuff? Are you quick to lose your temper? Are you addicted to gossip? Are you struggling in your marriage? Are you cutting corners at work to try to get ahead? Maybe you’ve done some terrible thing in the past and now you’re worrying about God holding it over you. Well, to understand how God views what you did, you have to think back and try to do an honest assessment of how much illumination and empowerment you had at the time. The fastest way for demons to get you caught up in endless shame is to convince you that you had more options than you really did. The fireman who didn’t rush into the burning building to save his partner feels horrible later on after his partner dies some ugly death. It’s so easy to look back on yourself and be merciless in your judgment by saying, “Why didn’t I just go in after him?” But think about it—why didn’t you? People have logical reasons for what they do. Fear is a very real thing. Heroic behavior is a result of empowerment.  It is totally natural to find your feet frozen to the ground when you’re looking at a wall of flames. It doesn’t make you some sucking failure because you were unable to overcome the limits God has hardwired into you.

In your natural state, your earthsuit is going to refuse to throw itself into harm’s way. It is quite natural for the soldier to find his muscles locking up and refusing to carry him out into the line of fire, even if he can see his buddy dying in front of him. It is really not fair at all to slap the coward label onto a human who is simply more limited than we are. We’re not all given the option of boldly staring down our captors and refusing to betray our friends no matter what. It is far more common for humans to crack under pressure and cheat, lie, cry, and hide when they are feeling threatened. So before we glare at the sex offender with hateful disgust, have we even stopped to consider that his limitations might be vastly different than our own? Often those who sexually abuse others have been sexually abused themselves, and usually such experiences drastically increase our limitations in life.

We humans are merciless judges who are far too quick to condemn each other. Yet while we demand the impossible, God does not. While others accuse you of being some willful rebel, God takes into account how much illumination and empowerment you had to work with at the time. Did you even understand that abortion was wrong back when you had one? Even if you did, did you have the empowerment to overcome the pressures that were on you at the time? Did you really cheat on your wife because you just didn’t care or because your nonexistent sex life set you up to find your secretary’s advances irresistible? Oh sure, now that it’s a different day with more emotional resources available it’s so easy to say, “I should have just said no.” But there was a reason you didn’t say no, and God knows whether that reason was willful defiance or a result of you getting pinned down by your limitations. God is a gracious judge, and He takes all of the factors into consideration—He doesn’t just talk about the end result.

Whenever possible, demons try to get you to judge your past actions using your present resources, because so often this will result in you deciding that you were a miserable failure. How many times do we find ourselves slammed with guilt the moment we discover some new bit of information about what pleases God? When the Catholic priest learns that God hates it when people pray to Mary, instead of rejoicing in the gift of illumination, the priest nose dives into shame because he realizes he’s been leading his flock astray for years. Perhaps he was, but not intentionally. It’s only just now that he’s learned better.  Does God really retro-condemn us?   No, He does not, but demons and people do. This is why it is so vital that we learn how very differently God judges us, for He is a thousand times easier to succeed with than anyone else.

We don’t want to become blind to God’s pleasure with us, and this is so easy to do when we don’t understand how He judges us. God is far more merciful than we are. He is far more kind and generous and He is so swift to move on from the past. He enjoys giving us new chances, and our obedience to Him today is not cancelled out by our stupid choices yesterday. God isn’t like the human father who is constantly reminding us of our failures while he downplays our successes. Instead, when He sees that we sincerely do want to please Him in life, God emphasizes our successes to the point that our past failings are forgotten. Remember David: the man who stole another man’s wife, then murdered a loyal friend to cover his tracks. These were two premeditated acts of willful defiance. Both actions were deserving of immediate execution, according to Yahweh’s Old Covenant Laws. Yet after David was dead and gone, with some of his worst mistakes recorded for all time, how did God summarize his life?

“…My servant David, who kept My commandments and who followed Me with all his heart, to do only that which was right in My sight.” (1 Ki. 14:8)

So according to Yahweh, David only ever did right in His eyes, because Yahweh chose to emphasize David’s successes to the point that David’s failures were totally forgotten. This is how easy God is to succeed with. This is why no matter what we’ve done wrong in the past, there is always reason to hope.

FURTHER READING:
Divine Judgment Q&A
Conviction Q&A
Identifying False Conviction: Three Easy Tests
Escaping the Trap of Guilt
How long will God punish me for the past?
Accepting the Mercy of God

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